If I ever thought of the Soviet Gulags, I imagined gangs of half-staved, brutalised men breaking rock but in reality, 10% of the prisoners were women, rising to 25% during WW2. Under the Soviet regime, you could be sent there for three years hard labour if you were late to work three times, or ten years for making a joke about the Communist system. Many women however, had committed no crime but were given long prison terms just because they were married to an “enemy of the People”.
It was not only wives who served time here, but mothers, sisters and daughters, too. There were also children in Alzhir [an infamous camp in Kazakhstan where many Azeri women were taken] and not just the offspring of “enemies of the people.” From its inception in 1937 to its closure after Stalin’s death in 1953, the camp witnessed 1,507 births by prisoners raped by their guards.
Yelena Glinka describes gang rape on a ship transporting prisoners to the Gulag:
“We were taken to this ship. We were marching, 5 abreast, as always, in columns. 5 abreast, surrounded on all sides by guards, guards dogs, German shepherds. All around, guards with machine guns. They loaded us aboard, and the first thing that happened was that female criminals—the people from the criminal underworld—began to rob us of our own clothes. They made the women strip. The women resisted, they yelled, they batted. It got so bad, that if the criminals liked your underwear, they made you sleep naked—naked—and tossed you some flea infested rags, in return. The prisoners in one of the men’s holds found a pick axe. They pierced a whole through the wall—into the women’s hold with a pick axe. And the men—the criminals began filling the women’s hold, and then they gang raped the women”. http://gulaghistory.org/exhibits/days-and-lives/conflict/4
Many were shipped here by train, spending up to two months trundling across the Soviet Union. Recently, an elderly lady peered into a train wagon at the camp at Alzirthat where you spent her youth. The wagin was similar to the one in which she was deported to Siberia in the 1930s. Why was she sent there? “How should I know?” she replied. “I wasn’t even eight.”
Women suffered greatly in the Gulag. Male camp employees, guards, and even other male prisoners raped and abused women. Some female prisoners took on “camp husbands” for protection and companionship. Some were pregnant on arrival or became pregnant while in the Gulag. Frequently, mothers had little respite from forced labor to give birth, and Gulag officials took babies from their mothers and placed them in special orphanages. Often these mothers were never able to find their children after leaving the camps.
Dr. David Huseynov of the Azerbaijan-American Council has estimated that between 1937 and 1938 some 120,000 Azeris were executed or sent to Gulags for being “enemies of the people”or inciting “pan-Turkist ideas”. The population was then less than six-million and hardly a family in the country was unaffected.
Release, if and when it finally came, did not always mean relief. People imprisoned in the 1940s could be sent back to a camp or to exile for life. After receiving a Certificate of Release, exiles were left on their own to find shelter and food. They were obliged to register monthly with the local authorities.
The Certificate of Rehabilitation of former GULAG prisoner Valentina Ievleva released in 1952 states that: “The case of Ievleva, Valentina Grigorievna, born in 1928 in Arkhangelsk and arrested on September 28, 1946, has been reviewed by the military tribunal of the Leningrad military district on October 26, 1959. The sentence pronounced by a military tribunal of the Arkhangelsk Region Interior Ministry on January 10, 1947, and the verdict of a military tribunal of the Leningrad region Interior Ministry delivered on February 8, 1947, in the case of Ievleva, V.G. are RESCINDED and the proceedings are dismissed for lack of evidence that a crime was committed.”
After receiving her Certificate of Rehabilitation, the former GULAG prisoner Adamova-Sliozberg wrote: “I was arrested on April 27, 1936. Thus I paid 20 years and 41 days of my life for this mistake… There was nobody else at home so I could cry with abandon.
I cried over my husband who died in the basement of Lubyanka when he was 37 years old, in the prime of his life and of his talent; over my children who grew up orphans stigmatized as children of ‘enemies of the people,’ over my parents who died of grief, over Nikolai who had been worn out in the camps, over my friends who hadn’t lived to rehabilitation and were buried in the frozen ground of Kolyma”.
Stalin died of a stroke, in bed, at the age of 75. How different the world might have been if someone had put a bullet in his brain in 1905, when he was held a prisoner in Lankaran, Azerbaijan for stirring up unrest in the oilfields of Baku…
I was inspired to write this blog entry after interviewing Valerisa Daniella Alexandrianova with Mason Wiley my American Peace Corps friend. Her family were sent from Azerbaijan to Siberia in 1940. They were not allowed to return until 1956, just after she was born.